The Liberal Discontents of Francis Fukuyama

The Liberal Discontents of Francis Fukuyama

A Bad Breakup

The discontents of Francis Fukuyama.


The end of the Cold War was supposed to usher in a better world. After four decades of struggle, the great battle between liberalism and Bolshevism had ended in the former’s decisive victory. Many in the West hoped that liberalism would now have free rein to shape events around the world. Utopia, at least of a liberal form, was finally within humanity’s grasp.

No essay embodied this feeling more than “The End of History?” Published in 1989 in The National Interest and written by a then-unknown State Department official named Francis Fukuyama, the piece proffered a simple three-step argument. First, Fukuyama claimed that throughout the world, people had decided that liberal democratic capitalism was superior to the authoritarian communism produced by Bolshevism and Maoism. Second, he argued that liberalism’s triumph meant that “History”—understood as the struggle between rival ideologies—had ended. Finally, he concluded that, over time, many nations that hadn’t yet become liberal capitalist democracies would inevitably do so, and that this would be good for humankind.

Today, many critics argue that Fukuyama was naive at best, foolish at worst. Nationalist authoritarianism, they note, reigns in countries like Russia, China, Turkey, Poland, and Hungary, while Western democracies hardly resemble the tempered utopia that Fukuyama imagined. Inequality has run rampant; people are alienated and depressed; and liberal governments seem incapable of performing basic functions. A hegemonic liberalism has not been able to tame capitalist excesses and as a result many have come to question liberalism writ large.

To take the United States as a paradigmatic example, increasing stratification has sparked a severe backlash against the form of liberalism that seemed destined to rule when Fukuyama wrote “The End of History?” On the left, a new generation, spurred in part by the Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns, has embraced a politics that organizes itself under the banner of socialism. On the right, nationalist reaction is back with a vengeance, as Donald Trump’s racist and xenophobic campaign and presidency impelled the resurgence of a right-wing radicalism that has not been seen since the 1990s, when white supremacists carried out spectacular acts like the Oklahoma City bombing. Meanwhile, the so-called center is adrift, unable to address the many problems that bedevil liberal democratic capitalism. To add insult to injury, beyond formal politics, exhaustion and ennui define much of American life. Across social classes, people have given up on the very idea of a better future.

Elite liberals can sense that they are losing ground and are anxious to redeem a tradition that has plainly been unable to deliver on its great promises. Liberalism is in crisis, and for the first time since the Cold War’s end, liberal thinkers feel the need to justify liberalism itself. From Adam Gopnik’s A Thousand Small Sanities to Mark Lilla’s The Once and Future Liberal to James Traub’s What Was Liberalism?, writers have begun to man the intellectual barricades, defending and promoting liberalism as the best possible solution to the world’s problems.

Fukuyama’s recent Liberalism and Its Discontents is part of this liberal counteroffensive. As a thinker, Fukuyama is the most distinguished of liberal apologists, and if anyone could make the positive case for liberalism, it’s him. But Liberalism and Its Discontents is not especially illuminating, repeating tired criticisms of the left and the right that don’t add much to scholarly analysis or political conversation. In essence, Fukuyama believes that embracing centrist liberalism was, and remains, the “mature” thing to do. While adolescents and fools endorse politics of radical change, adults accept that the limited reforms of liberalism are the best humanity can hope for. Though Fukuyama is willing to acknowledge many of liberalism’s limitations, he cannot envision a world beyond it.

The tragedy of our times is that he doesn’t really need to, because the argument he proffered in “The End of History?” has proved correct. No ideology has arisen to challenge liberalism, whether in the United States or elsewhere. Fukuyama and the other defenders of liberalism thus don’t actually have to be that persuasive. Liberalism reigns, and it looks set to do so into the foreseeable future. History, for the moment at least, remains at its end.

Though most remember “The End of History?” as triumphant in tone, it was also melancholic, often sounding almost like a breakup letter. There was good reason for this: For the first decade of his career, Fukuyama was in a long-distance relationship with the Soviet Union. It was the lodestar around which he organized his life. The Soviet Union provided Fukuyama with a calling—his professional specialty was Soviet behavior in the Third World—and it also gave him ideological perspective. Whatever the Soviet Union was, the United States (and Fukuyama) was not. The Soviet Union was the Joker to Fukuyama’s Batman. When it went away, he lost far more than a worthy adversary; he lost the object against which he’d defined his own moral and political compass.

From the start of his career, Fukuyama was interested in questions of ideology. When he began writing in the late 1970s as an intern at the RAND Corporation, a materialist realism that focused primarily on power relations abounded, both in the academy and in Washington, D.C. Thinkers like Kenneth Waltz and policy-makers like Henry Kissinger insisted that the Soviet Union was a “normal” nation with “normal” (read: power-focused) interests. Fukuyama disagreed with this consensus. Against his elders, the young analyst maintained that the Soviets were actually ideological enemies of the United States who desired to remake the world in their communist image. Where Kissinger understood geopolitics as a great game of power and interests, Fukuyama centered ideas. He thus spent the early years of his career analyzing Soviet efforts to create “ideological states” in places like Afghanistan, Angola, Mozambique, and Nicaragua. According to Fukuyama, ideology—not just power—needed to be taken seriously in international relations.

When Mikhail Gorbachev became the general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in March 1985, Fukuyama started to notice that communism’s traditional nostrums seemed to hold less sway in both the Soviet metropole and the larger world. Gorbachev, Fukuyama wrote, not only abandoned “the old ideological language of Marxism-Leninism,” he also focused his efforts on working with states like India, which could hardly be described as communist. Furthermore, Soviet developmental economists had begun to argue in favor of modernization efforts that combined “socialist and market-oriented solutions,” while Third World leaders themselves made it clear that they were primarily interested in development and were not especially concerned with the ideological precepts that helped them achieve it. Faith in the communist project, Fukuyama concluded, had seriously diminished.

Despite these transformations, however, Fukuyama remained unable to abandon the Cold War; his attraction to it was that profound. Even as one part of Fukuyama understood that the US-Soviet relationship was entering a new phase, another part of him refused to believe it. As late as 1988, in the last essay he published before “The End of History?,” Fukuyama affirmed that even if “centrally planned economies and one-party dictatorships are in a bad odor,” the United States needed to make strategy “on the assumption that [it’s] dealing with the same old Soviet Union.” Though Fukuyama couldn’t help but notice that the passion was gone from the relationship, he wanted it to continue. And anyway, things could change. Maybe the old magic would return.

But by the time “The End of History?” appeared in The National Interest in the summer of 1989, Fukuyama—who had by then migrated from RAND to the State Department—had come to terms with the undeniable reality: The Cold War was over. In February, the Soviets had begun withdrawing their tanks and soldiers from Czechoslovakia. In April, the Polish trade union Solidarity had been legalized; that same month, Soviet troops had started leaving Hungary. In July, Gorbachev had declared that he would not prevent the ongoing reforms in Eastern Europe. While the final collapse of the Soviet Union was still two and a half years away, not even Fukuyama could deny the facts. The US-Soviet struggle, a struggle that had defined his life and career, was at an end.

The End of History?” was more than just a piece of commentary; it was a diagnosis, an announcement of victory, and a lament, an explication of where Fukuyama thought the world was as well as an expression of how he felt about it. Fukuyama concluded that the US triumph in the Cold War was an epochal achievement, even as he appreciated that the future would not be as romantic without his old Soviet rival. And that’s why there’s a question mark in the title. Though “The End of History?” makes it clear that, intellectually, Fukuyama knows the answer to his question, emotionally he finds it difficult to accept.

Fukuyama’s argument in “The End of History?” was straightforward but profound. He claimed that the struggle between ideologies that had defined history in the 19th and 20th centuries was, in effect, over—that there were no longer any “viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism.” From the Soviet Union, where Gorbachev had implemented glasnost and perestroika, to China, where Deng Xiaoping had liberalized the economy, communists had accepted liberalism’s “democratizing and decentralizing principles.” These transformations, Fukuyama insisted, were not merely important; they were epochal. “What we may be witnessing,” he ventured, “is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Whether in a year, a generation, or a century, eventually everyone would become liberal.

In Fukuyama’s telling, liberalism had proved itself superior to competing ideological alternatives because it was able to resolve all “fundamental ‘contradictions’ in human life,” especially “that between capital and labor.” If inequality existed in liberal societies, he asserted, it was not because of their “underlying legal and social structure[s]” but because of “the historical legacy of premodern conditions.” Black Americans, for example, were poor not because of liberal democratic capitalism, but because of the “legacy of slavery and racism”—atavisms that more liberalism would cure. The same was true when it came to war. Following the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who claimed that “perpetual peace” could be achieved if every government embraced liberal precepts, Fukuyama avowed that at the end of history there would no longer be “ideological grounds for major conflict between nations.” War might thus become a thing of the past.

In these ways, “The End of History?” was triumphalist. But it was also suffused with an intense anxiety about what might come next. While Fukuyama is often considered one of late-20th-century liberalism’s greatest advocates, he was always a bit skeptical of the ideology’s ability to satiate the innate human desire for connection and meaning. In particular, Fukuyama envied communists, because communism provided its adherents with a profound sense of community, engendering feelings of global solidarity that encouraged leftist governments to aid and make sacrifices for one another, even when doing so wasn’t in their avowed national interest. Unlike communism, Fukuyama explained in an essay from the mid-1980s, liberalism had little “explicit doctrine” related to “international capitalist solidarity”—the latter, in fact, was almost a contradiction in terms, given liberal capitalism’s individualistic ethos. Where communist nations like Cuba and the Soviet Union offered “fraternal assistance…as a matter of principle,” cooperation between liberal governments would always “have to be arranged on an ad hoc basis, probably among states…directly affected by a common threat.” Under communism, people believed in a grand project and cooperated to bring it about; under liberalism, neither collective action nor social good will was encouraged. Though Fukuyama, of course, thought Marxist-Leninist beliefs were silly at best and destructive at worst, he nevertheless envied the kinds of solidarities they engendered. Ironically, the only time liberalism could inspire similar associations and feelings was when it was engaged in an epic battle with an existential enemy. Without such an enemy, liberalism was a bit bloodless.

This pessimistic understanding of liberalism helps explain the melancholic notes in “The End of History?” History’s end, Fukuyama predicted mournfully, “will be a very sad time,” because “the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.” Liberalism may work better than communism, but it couldn’t satisfy the human yearning for connection and meaning; as Fukuyama later wrote, the ideology ultimately had a “vacuum” at its center. For this reason, he prophesied that in a liberal world shorn of momentous conflict, many people would not be all that happy. He wasn’t wrong.

The strange blend of triumphalism and melancholy that characterized “The End of History?” did not exactly spur a rapturous response from Fukuyama’s fellow conservatives. Gertrude Himmelfarb and Irving Kristol insisted that history was far too dynamic to ever end. The philosopher Timothy Fuller accused Fukuyama of bad dialectics for positing “the victory of one prong of the opposition.” Samuel Huntington maintained that human nature was too irrational to permit Fukuyama’s predicted end—or as Huntington abrasively put it, “in history there may be total defeats, but there are no final solutions.” The right wasn’t yet ready to say goodbye to ideological conflict.

But where conservative eggheads rejected Fukuyama’s thesis, significant parts of the public embraced it. As The New York Times Magazine’s James Atlas reported in October 1989, “The End of History?” had rapidly become “the hottest topic around,” with one Washington, D.C., newsdealer informing Atlas that The National Interest was “outselling everything, even the pornography.” Several months after the essay’s release, Atlas observed, “you still can’t pick up a magazine or a newspaper without stumbling across some reference to Fukuyama.” “The End of History?” nailed the zeitgeist, as the end of an era bred an era of ends, from Arthur C. Danto’s “the end of art” to Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature. Fukuyama, in short, did what the best writers do: He gave a feeling a phrase.

Fukuyama became that rare thing: a celebrity intellectual. He left the State Department and embarked on a lucrative career as a thought leader. “The End of History?” and its 1992 book-length expansion, The End of History and the Last Man (notice the lack of question mark), were smash hits—according to Google Scholar, the former has been cited around 11,500 times and the latter around 30,000 (and was also a New York Times best seller). In the more than three decades since “The End of History?” appeared, Fukuyama has written regularly for Foreign Affairs, Commentary, and The American Interest and has moved among several elite institutions, including RAND, Johns Hopkins, and Stanford, where he is currently a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. A more successful intellectual career could hardly be imagined.

As his career took off, Fukuyama ranged widely in his subject matter, writing about everything from biotechnology to identity politics. But throughout it all, he remained best known, and most respected, as a theorist of liberalism. And while he may have had his misgivings about the ideology back in 1989, three decades of eating from the celebrity trough, coupled with the appearance of some apparent anti-liberal challengers, have led him to become a vociferous defender of the creed.

Indeed, defense sits at the heart of Liberalism and Its Discontents, a manifesto designed to fend off the attacks of what Fukuyama terms the “progressive left” and the “populist right.” You’ve already heard others deliver arguments similar to the ones Fukuyama offers here, in venues from The Atlantic to MSNBC to The New York Times. The left and the right are intolerant. The left is anti-capitalist; the right is anti-democratic. Both are bad for liberalism. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Unfortunately, much of Liberalism and Its Discontents is defined by the false equivalence Fukuyama draws between left and right. In effect, he insists that anyone who rejects liberal centrism is slouching toward authoritarianism. But, as Fukuyama well knows, there is an enormous difference between the left and the right, especially in the United States. While the right wants to overturn some of the institutions of liberal democracy, the left has long since made its peace with them. No major leftist leader, from Bernie Sanders to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or institution, from the Democratic Socialists of America to Jacobin, questions the legitimacy of liberal democracy as such or rejects core liberal precepts like free speech, free elections, freedom of the press, or freedom of assembly. Joseph Stalin or Pravda they are not. The left, if anything, argues that democratic socialism can be achieved only through democratic means. But for Fukuyama to make his case, he has to clear the decks by equating left and right, even when the two are clearly not equivalent. This approach isn’t especially convincing.

More interesting than Fukuyama’s predictable criticisms is his willingness to confront liberalism’s “discontents” head-on. In particular, and unlike in “The End of History?,” he recognizes that actually existing liberalism has produced an enormous amount of inequality. Yet Fukuyama doesn’t blame liberalism itself for this reality but instead the radical neoliberals who rejected “state intervention…as a matter of principle.” The solution to inequality is therefore obvious: deradicalize contemporary liberalism and return it to its reformist and centrist roots. Specifically, Fukuyama urges neoliberals to accept that markets “function only when they are strictly regulated by states”; that social welfare is necessary; and that “economic efficiency” is not the be-all and end-all of human life. If minds change, he avows, society will too.

As this suggests, Fukuyama rejects the left-wing argument “that liberalism inevitably leads to neoliberalism and an exploitative form of capitalism.” He points out that for much of the late 19th and 20th centuries, incomes in liberal societies rose, which allowed liberals to “put into place extensive social protections and labor rights.” In Fukuyama’s view, liberalism and social progress historically go together. But is this true? On the one hand, the benefits that the working classes in the liberal West achieved were gained at the expense of the Global South, which was cannibalized for the metropole’s enjoyment. On the other hand, as Fukuyama is aware, the era to which he refers was also a time when liberalism had to do battle with other grand ideologies and thus was forced to temper some of its worst tendencies. Strangely, Fukuyama doesn’t consider that liberalism at the end of history might be disposed to its cruelest extremes. If the past 30 years demonstrate anything, it’s that absent any genuine ideological threat, liberals will enact maximalist policies, from the broad deregulation of industry to the dismantling of the welfare state. Put another way, reforming liberalism might be an impossible project to realize at history’s end.

For many people, Fukuyama’s earlier prediction that the end of history would be “a very sad time” has turned out to be true. In fact, in Liberalism and Its Discontents, Fukuyama sometimes acknowledges as much. For example, he notes that manifold liberal subjects feel “lonely and alienated in their individualism.” Yet at the same time, he affirms that “modern liberal states have dense networks of voluntary civil society organizations that provide community, social services, and advocacy to their members and to the political community more broadly.” What gives? Is the end of history sad or not?

Clearly, when it comes to exploring what it feels like to live at history’s end, Fukuyama the analyst stands in tension with Fukuyama the liberal booster. The former appreciates that life under liberalism is often grim, defined by anomie, precarity, and despair; the latter can’t believe that, and so he doesn’t. Though Fukuyama can’t ignore liberalism’s numerous problems, he also can’t bring himself to imagine that there might be an alternative. To him, accepting the inevitability of liberalism is identical with mature thinking. Liberalism, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, is the worst ideology, except for all the others. It’s what we’ve got, so let’s defend it and make it better.

Today, Fukuyama retains his commitment to the thesis he presented in “The End of History?” As he explained in The Atlantic last October, neither China, nor Russia, nor Iran, nor any other authoritarian state poses a real challenge to liberalism. Autocratic governments, he notes, make bad decisions—they invade Ukraine or enact a zero-Covid policy—and most people don’t want to live under them. It’s not a surprise that there are far more migrants to Europe or the United States than to Russia or China. “No authoritarian government,” Fukuyama correctly affirms, “presents a society that is, in the long term, more attractive than liberal democracy.” History remains at its end.

It’s difficult to say that Fukuyama is wrong. Liberalism faces no serious challengers to its domination, either from the left or from the right. But this leads us to a question. Why haven’t liberalism’s failures engendered a more robust ideological backlash? Even clearly anti-liberal rivals to the United States, such as China and Russia, don’t proffer alternative, universally applicable ideological systems to the world. Instead, both countries act like the nationalist authoritarian regimes they are, focusing primarily on improving their relative power positions within their respective regions. At the same time, while President Joseph Biden regularly invokes the notion of a Manichean struggle between democracy and authoritarianism to justify the United States’ foreign policy, the US government, like its enemies, seems far more concerned with military and economic power than ideology. Perhaps there hasn’t been a vigorous ideological response to liberalism because we’re entering a post-ideological age defined more by power politics than by ideational struggle.

The decreasing importance of ideology becomes especially clear when one realizes that most countries, whether liberal democracies like the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany or autocracies like China, Russia, Iran, and Hungary, have one thing in common: They’re all capitalist. Capital, it appears, doesn’t really care what ideology a given state embraces.

So where does this leave us? Unfortunately, in much the same place that we found ourselves 25 years, 50 years, or 100 years ago—struggling for control over our lives. The only difference is that we now know, contra Fukuyama, that liberalism is incapable of making capitalism’s wonders work for most of humanity. But this failure might provide us with an opportunity, at least at some point in the future. When capitalism’s contradictions prove to be too great, it’s possible liberalism’s hegemony will collapse, and we will be able to conceive of ideas presently unthinkable. And with new ideas, history might restart again.

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